Phillies Pheatured Players: the Starting Rotation

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Jun 16, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola (27) walks past teammates in the dugout after being relieved in the fourth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 16, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola (27) walks past teammates in the dugout after being relieved in the fourth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Philadelphia Phillies open a weekend wraparound series with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night, and the Phils’ starting pitching rotation is struggling mightily.

Unlike most of my features, which will generally focus each series on a particular Phillies player who has been hot of late, I am going to examine how a few key players have struggled.

At the start of 2016, it felt like the pitchers were the only thing worth caring about on this team. In the month of April, Phillies starters combined for 3.8 fWAR, which was third behind only the division-rival New York Mets and Washington Nationals’ starters in all of Major League Baseball.

Vincent Velazquez’ 16-strikeout gem culminated what was a spectacular month of April for the righty, in which he carried just 2.39 FIP and struck out 33% of opposing hitters.

Jerad Eickhoff, Charlie Morton, Aaron Nola, and Jeremy Hellickson all had strong starts as well. The Phillies rotation combined for a 2.95 FIP and 10.25 K/9 in that opening month of the 2016 season.

Once the calendar flipped from April to May, however, the rotation began to fall apart. Phillies’ starters had a 4.31 FIP in the month of May, which ranked them 18th in MLB. From there it only gets worse, with the staff turning in a 5.85 ERA so far in the month of June.

Velazquez’ mercurial rise halted quickly, with his ERA ballooning to 5.12 over six May starts, after he had posted just a 1.78 mark in April. Vinny then proceeded to make only one start in June before having to be pulled after just two pitches due to a biceps injury on June 8th. The former Astros pitcher hadn’t gone longer than six innings since May 12th, and is now on the disabled list.

In addition, Morton was shelved for the remainder of 2016 after receiving surgery to repair a hamstring injury suffered on the below play:

Reports indicate that Morton could have been traded, which would have given the Phillies a solid prospect in return for Morton’s early success.

The Phillies had to compensate for both of these player’s injuries, turning to the minor leagues to do so. Adam Morgan was recalled from Lehigh Valley in the wake of Morton’s trip to the disabled list, and it’d be an understatement to say he has not done well. His ERA of 6.33 is the ninth-highest among all starters with 40 or more innings pitched.

Zach Eflin, whom MLB Pipeline ranked as the No. 13 prospect in the Phillies system, made his MLB debut after Velazquez was sent to the DL. The righty was shellacked in his first start against the powerful Blue Jays, allowing nine runs before being pulled in just 2.2 innings.

Hellickson had a solid month of May as well, with opposing batters holding just a .243 batting average against him. However, June has not treated him well, as Hellickson holds a 7.41 ERA through 17 innings so far this month.

Meanwhile, Eickhoff had a rough May but has shown improvement this month, going from a 3.99 ERA in May to a 1.37 ERA through three starts in June. Eickhoff pitched in the only win the Phillies had over the Blue Jays in this week’s home-and-home series.

Perhaps the only bright spot in the rotation so far this season has been second-year righthander Aaron Nola. The LSU product has struck out 26.4% of opposing batters while allowing walks to only 5.4% of the time. Nola’s 1.8 fWAR leads the team both among batters and pitchers.

Despite his impressive arsenal, even Nola has felt the woes of the Phillies’ rotation. In his past two outings, Nola has not made it past the fourth inning while allowing four runs to the Nationals on June 11th and eight runs to the Blue Jays just last night.

Related Story: Phillies, Nola Sink to a New Low

Any aid for the Phillies rotation will most likely come from within, considering new GM Matt Klentak most likely wants to give players in the organization as much professional development time as possible.

Jake Thompson, who we ranked here at TBOH as the #3 overall prospect in the Phillies system, would stand to be the next player promoted if another injury rolls around.

While his strikeout numbers have been unimpressive at AAA Lehigh Valley, his walk numbers are in line with his performance in 2015. One of Thompson’s biggest weaknesses has been control, so to see repeated solid walk numbers is nothing to scoff at for the 22-year old.

Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be much help coming from the minor league ranks in the short-term. Mark Appel is the only other starter who would be at least semi-ready, and he is on the disabled list nursing a shoulder injury.

Ben Lively has made only four starts for the IronPigs so far, and still has a ways to go before he can be considered big league ready, though he has been improving rapidly. Besides these players, no real prospects exist in the AAA rotation.

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It was also revealed this past week that advanced pitching prospect Alec Asher, who made a handful of ineffective starts with the Phillies last summer after coming over in the big Cole Hamels deal, has been suspended for 80 games by MLB for using PEDs. That perhaps accounts for the dramatic positive turnaround in results that Asher had been getting at Lehigh Valley.

With a starting pitching rotation that has begun to fall back to Earth after a blazing start to 2016, the Phillies now look like the type of team which most predicted them to be before the year began, one that will lose much more than it will win.

As injuries pile up in both the Major League rotation and among the minor league options, it appears that over the coming months we’ll have to hope that Eickhoff continues to shine, that Nola quickly rights his ship, and that the remaining options stay healthy.

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